“It’s five years from now and the startup you’re pitching me failed. What happened?”
I love asking this question to early-stage founders interviewing for Tacklebox, my pre-product accelerator. It’s a great way to learn how they think about and mitigate risk. Founders mostly reply with the usual suspects: They’ll fail because they “couldn’t raise funding” or “couldn’t find a technical cofounder.” Sometimes they’re sunk by competition, timing, or shifts in technology. Founders in the retail space sigh, look off into the distance like a dog whose owner is leaving for work for the day, then whisper “. . . Amazon.” But no matter how they answer, most entrepreneurs secretly assume they’ve nailed this question.
Except chances are, they haven’t. The biggest risk for every early-stage founder is the same–regardless of whether they’re building a blockchain for social impact or a bakery. It’s customer indifference. In short, it’s unfathomably hard to get anyone to do anything. Even if your customer’s life will be demonstrably better if they use your product–and they know it–they’ll still often drag their feet.
The standby method for proving that your idea will inspire people to take action before you sink too much time and money into it is to build a “minimum viable product,” or MVP. Unfortunately, the MVPs most founders build don’t work as intended. The vast majority of startups fail, and when CB Insights recently asked founders of failed startups what went wrong, 42% cited “no market need”–read: customer indifference–while another 31% mentioned synonymous terms: “ignored customers,” “pivot gone bad,” or “failure to pivot.” Basically, the leading cause of death for failed startups is building products customers don’t want.
So it’s time to retire the MVP and replace it with something else. I hereby nominate the “effort validation product,” or EVP, to take its place. Here’s what it is, and why it’s a whole lot better.
The Two Truths Your MVP Doesn’t Account For
For many founders, an MVP is something small that proves there’s demand–a Facebook ad and a landing page, for example, just to gauge interest. But too often, MVPs don’t sufficiently account for two important startup truths that early-stage founders–especially first-timers–always need to wrestle with, whether they realize it or not:
- Customers can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. No matter how simple, frictionless, or user-friendly your product is, it’ll require your customers to do something different today than they did yesterday. That rarely happens. Which leads us to our second important truth . . .
- Founders overestimate how much action uninspired people will take, and underestimate how much action inspired people will take.
If you can inspire your customers–meaning you can describe an outcome that would be amazing for them and solve one of the biggest problems–they’ll move mountains for you. Anything less and you’ll be met with apathy; people won’t lift a finger for a new product that promises incremental gains.
Unlike MVPs, a good EVP doesn’t focus on features. Features will likely change. The focus needs to be on the outcome you’re creating–you need to connect on an emotional level with your customer, which means that your EVP should measure not the viability of your product, but the level of enthusiasm your core audience might have for it in the first place.
Building Real Demand Pre-Product
Deepak Chhugani is a solo, non-technical founder who went through my Tacklebox program and was later admitted to Y Combinator. He’s incredibly smart and hard-working, but that’s table stakes for any successful founder. What set him apart was the rabid, early user base he cultivated through a kickass EVP.
The idea for Chhugani’s startup, The Lobby, stems from personal experience. He went to a “non-core” college, one where top investment banks don’t recruit. But Chhugani wanted to work for a top investment bank, so he hustled his way to intros, which led to meetings, which led to recommendations, which led to interviews, and finally to a job.
He left banking a few years later to launch a startup he’s since shut down, but all along he couldn’t shake the feeling that plenty of qualified people were overlooked at banks because they went to colleges where banks didn’t recruit on campus. He knew a huge part of the process was getting to know potential employers, specifically those in the group you’d like to work in. This couldn’t happen at non-core schools but was essential for getting a job.
Chhugani wanted to build a product to help students get in front of bankers, but first he needed to prove that smart, motivated students at less elite schools would move mountains just to have these conversations. So he built a simple EVP to prove it. The first piece was a LinkedIn post offering prospective bankers at non-core schools the opportunity to buy informational calls with employees at top banks. This could lead to referrals, interviews, and hopefully job offers. There was ambiguity around the features of the product, but the messaging was clear: “Just because you didn’t go to an Ivy League school doesn’t mean you’re not qualified. Here’s your chance to prove it.”
Related: This Is Why Your Startup Will Fail
The “product” itself was part two of the EVP. Once a user had signed up from the LinkedIn post, they were told they’d need to refer three friends–who all had to sign up, too–just to get on the list for a potential call. Next, they had to upload a resume and, if selected by Chhugani, prepay for a call with an anonymous banker at a top bank. These hurdles kept out the fringe users, but motivated folks happily fought their way through. Chhugani would then arrange match up candidates with bankers for 30-minute phone calls.
Users bought multiple calls and sent unsolicited emails thanking Chhugani for helping them. Referrals and overwhelmingly positive reviews flowed in.
Your EVP Should Keep (Some) People Out
The EVP of The Lobby stunk. It was basically a spreadsheet; the process was clunky, slow, manual, and ugly. It kept out tons of potential customers. But that didn’t matter–actually, that’s the point.
The best EVPs aren’t the ones that have the least friction or are the easiest and simplest for customers to use. They’re the ones that are hardest on your customer. Customers will fight through if they believe in the vision you’re proposing and will stick with you until you get there. The effort they’re willing to expend (or not) is what lets you know that people think your product is worth building. You need to know if you’ve got a group of core customers who will evangelize the brand. You won’t survive and grow without them.
EVPs also make all the other early-stage challenges easier: funding, hiring a team, etc., are straightforward once you’ve shown there’s a rabid group of initial customers. Talented people are eager to work on things that customers care deeply about. Investors want to fund those things. The goal becomes reducing friction, and building a great product that will allow you to move right on the adoption curve and capture more customers. That’s the type of idea that’s worth your time.
Chhugani was able to prove how important his product was to his customer. This helped him attract the resources that he couldn’t grow without. So don’t remove friction, add it. Make your customers jump through hoops. Make sure you’re building something that matters. Then pour everything you’ve got into it–but not a second before.